Not Interested in That Sort of Thing
“Well I think she’s rather beautiful,” said my grandmother. It was Christmas. I must have been 11 or 12, and the large book that she had open on her lap—her gift to me—was open at an image so ridiculously sexy that my pre-pubescent cheeks were flushed deep red and my scalp was tingling.
Hockney Posters was probably the first coffee table art book I owned, long before I had a coffee table. I remember the cover: it featured a painting of a Pierrot-style clown doing a handstand. Except for the page held up for family appraisal by my grandmother, I remember in detail very few of the reproductions inside. That one, like many in the book, was a photo-collage. This was the late 1980s, soon after Hockney’s photo-Cubist phase, and so anti-perspectival panoramas of the Californian desert and of friends relaxing in their light-filled homes seemed to predominate. Then there were clumsily painted announcements for grand operas (coy middle-class provocations) and vases of flowers (middle-class consolations).
In so many ways, I did not associate most of these artworks with a world I was interested in. Aside from their social and geographic milieu (which seemed, when viewed from my village in the English Midlands, impossibly remote), they represented a culture that was simply not mine, or meant for me. They felt like the kind of thing my mother would like: the kind of breezy, untroubling aesthetic destined for tablemats, greetings cards, or, for that matter, posters. Looking at them today, I feel much the same.
When extraterrestrials are picking over the smoldering vestiges of human civilization in decades to come, this book of reproductions of posters for exhibitions of artworks will either utterly confound them, or unlock for them all the insights into 1980s Western bourgeois culture they could possibly require. This was the era in which framing posters for one’s walls became a chic second-best to hanging art itself, and in which museums began to design their publicity material with this aspirational status in mind. Most posters never got the chance to advertise their exhibitions, pasted on walls around town; instead they commemorated them from racks in the gift shop. It still happens, of course, but rarely does a single artist’s publicity material get the attention Hockney’s does in this book.
Even now, it staggers me that someone, somewhere, decided that the photo-collage that caught my bemused family’s attention, titled “Nude, 17th June 1984”— one of Hockney’s most erotic photo works—should be the publicity image for his 1985 exhibition at the annual Rencontres internationales de la photographie, Arles. “Those French!” I marveled to myself at the time, wondering (as I also did watching late-night French television on holiday) at our Gallic neighbors’ permissiveness.
The model is Theresa Russell, the then 27-year-old wife of director Nicolas Roeg, 30 years her senior, who commissioned the portrait as a prop for his 1985 film Insignificance, in which Russell plays Marilyn Monroe. Apparently it was intended as a vampy send-up of 1960s pin-up shots, with Russell in a blonde wig and beauty spot, licking her lips lasciviously. Needless to say, the irony in the image was lost on my 11-year-old mind, which bypassed such subtle inferences and cut straight to the compositional chase: a beautiful naked woman writhing on rumpled silk sheets, her arms up over her head and her eyes fixed brazenly on the camera. Between you and me, the irony somewhat evades me still.
Did I know, at this point, that Hockney is gay? I can’t remember—nor can I recall precisely what that information would have meant to me if I had. I can easily imagine someone from my extended family commenting that they “didn’t think he was interested in that sort of thing.” It doesn’t matter. It was obvious to me then, as it is now, that he totally was.
Exactly what Hockney was interested in when he was shooting these pictures is slightly less obvious. He was, and remains, an indiscriminate scopophiliac: one for whom the erotic pleasures of looking are not dependent on the erotic qualities of the object. He confided to Lawrence Weschler, in 1983: “I’ve always loved that phrase of Constable’s where he says, ‘I never saw an ugly thing.’ Doing these collages I think I’ve come to better understand what he means: it’s the very process of looking at something that makes it beautiful.”
Hockney set a fire in my young mind, and showed me that, in pictures, desire and ideology—the body and the mind—are often amorously intertwined. Then he retreated from my view, back to the middlebrow culture of those vases on tables, Yorkshire landscapes, and portraits of distinguished friends. I honestly hadn’t thought much about that book, or the art inside, for a decade or two. Then, improbably, I moved to Los Angeles, where you can’t not think about Hockney, especially if you are English. I particularly like to think of him in the late 1960s, when his palpable excitement at being a transplant mirrored, for a while, my own. I even met him once, briefly. I’m still waiting for my invitation to his studio though, where, naturally, he will do my portrait, and I will be captured by the culture I had once imagined I had left behind.
Jonathan Griffin is a freelance writer, critic, teacher and curator. Born in London, he now lives in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor for Frieze magazine, and he also writes for Art Review, the New York Times T-Magazine, the Art Newspaper, Mousse, Art Agenda, and Apollo. He recently curated the exhibition Cogwheels Carved in Wood, at Night Gallery, Los Angeles, featuring work by the British artist Derek Boshier